Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Finding Center

When my little one started talking at eight months, I was mesmerized and quickly got on the "more-better-faster" cultural bandwagon of early childhood education. 

By the time she was one, I'd filled the bath tub with foam letters and began forming three letter words during bath-time.   At bed-time I'd read slowly while pointing to the words on the chunky cardboard pages -- emphasizing the sounds of the letters and their place on the page.  I made everything I could into a learning game, "one ladybug plus two ladybugs equals three ladybugs!"

Before she was two, I'd bought mountains of books and and turned "playing school" into a game.  I prefaced everything with it's color, "hand mommy the green ball," "I like Daddy's red shirt," "that's such a pretty brown dog."  I mentioned numbers everywhere I saw them, "look at the five-petaled flower," "see the four birds on the fence." I counted the beans on her high chair tray as she ate them, "seven beans minus one bean is six beans!"

When she learned her shapes and colors before her second birthday, I was thrilled by her capacity for learning.  By the time she was three, she was reading and our homeschool was taking form as more than a game we played.  Learning together had become our way of life.  Each new day was an adventure in learning. 

We went on like this for some time.  The more she learned, the  more work I gave her. 
(In hindsight, I think this is where we went wrong.)  I bought all of the workbooks I could find and sat her down at her desk each morning with phonics and math worksheets while I made breakfast or did dishes.  Before she was five, she'd completed all the workbooks for Kindergarten and First Grade phonics and math.  Before Kindergarten was through, she'd mastered the entire Fry's 300 sight word list and was, according to an assesment tool at Hoagies, reading at a fourth grade level.

But at the same time, I couldn't help but think that this wasn't the the best path.  As Kindergarten pressed on, I began to slow down... I began to ask myself, "where does this path lead?"  What was I really trying to accomplish here?  Isn't there more to nurture in a child than their intellect?  How much stress is this causing her?  And do I really want my girl sitting at a desk filling out worksheets all of the time?  I thought back to the fun we had when she was a toddler -- learning as we went about our day... rather than sitting at a desk with her tiny fingers cramped around a pencil.  It was about this time that I really got down to reading about different methods of education and discovered the wonderful world of Waldorf.

Waldorf's hands on learning approach seemed similar to what we'd been doing in the early years.  I liked the "how" -- the method of learning -- but I wasn't sold on the "when."  (Waldorf asks us to hold off on the academics until the child is six or seven years old.)  I was certainly ready to give up the worksheets -- but I wasn't completely ready to give up on the standards.  Waldorf asks us to do just that -- to let go of our pre-formed ideas of how, what, and when our children should be learning and, at least in the early years, embrace a softer, slower pace.  In this fast paced world, how does one let their child "fall behind" their peers in school?  To answer that question, I had to take a long, hard look at the system and the standards.  I had to question why traditional schools were teaching what they were teaching and how they were teaching it.  What I found was a strange history and a barrage of voices crying out for an education revolution...

Voices like
John Holt, an early proponent of homeschool who argued that children do not learn in school because they are afraid of failing... voices like John Taylor Gatto who writes, "school often acts as an obstacle to success. To go from the confinement of early childhood to the confinement of the classroom to the confinement of homework, working to amass a record entitling you to a “good” college, where the radical reduction of your spirit will continue, isn’t likely to build character or prepare you for a good life..." 

... voices like
Sir Ken Robinson who argues that the absence of music, art, and dance in our institutionalized schools is educating the creativity right out of our kids... and voices like Lawrence Williams who writes, "We continue this sad charade generation after generation, crushing the boundless potential of billions of children, yet we never consider trying another approach, an approach which would permit those infinite resources to flow abundantly into the world for the healing of us all."

When I look back at these six years, I regret pushing the worksheets and putting so much emphasis on keeping ahead of the standards (without first questioning the origin of those standards).  Those were the things that caused tears, worries, and took the fun out of learning.  Those were the things that I think disrupt a child's balanced growth by forcing the intellect too soon -- and this quickly became apparent to me.  But the other things we've done (looking for organic learning opportunities in everything we do together, immersion in archetypes, mindfulness, yoga, etc.) worked.  I think it's time for all of us to re-evaluate the "more-better-faster" model of education.  We should take care not to push too hard or neglect the arts in favor of strict academic achievements.  Our pendulum needs to swing back to the middle.  

For First Grade we've gone beyond the standards, beyond the books, slowed down, and embraced childhood more fully.  We're using the Oak Meadow curriculum, keeping it fun, looking at the big picture, and giving A. every chance to express herself artistically in an environment that nurtures more than her mind.  Our first nine days have included finger-knitting a dress-up scarf and headband, wet-on-wet watercolor painting, learning Mary Had a Little Lamb on the soprano recorder, beeswax crayon drawing, an array of archetypal stories, a review of the four processes of math with a story about The Four Gnomes (named Plus, Minus, Times, and Divide), nature walks and setting up a nature table, pressing flowers, watching the moon and learning about its phases, making a September calendar for our classroom, playing memory games with the contents of our CSA Veggie Box (while learning about eating locally, organically, & seasonally), and making time for plenty of imaginative play with natural toys and playsilks.

With the Autumn Equinox taking place this year on September 23rd, our mindfulness unit this month is Equanimity (or upekkha in the Indic language of Pali).  Equanimity is the capacity for experiencing whatever is happening with composure of mind and heart.  It is the ability to resist extremes and balance gracefully in the middle-ness.  As the days become equal to the night, we are practicing becoming aware of our own dark and light moments and learning how we can experience both with equanimity.  

I hope to make time for writing more about our Equanimity Unit  soon.  In the meantime, I'm continuing to find my own center and come back to it again and again.

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